The problem with the word conservative is that it leaves open the question of what it is you are conserving exactly. It can refer to Kremlin KGB types, Saudi Muslims, polygamous Mormons, and men like J. Gresham Machen. And a conservationist is someone who derives his ideological identity from wanting to conserve other stuff.
So different kinds of conservatives want to conserve different kinds of things. Big government conservatives want to conserve the victories of their fathers’ enemies. Small government conservatives want to conserve the memory of a kind of thinking that made its last public appearance during the adminstration of Grover Cleveland. So different kinds of conservatives want to conserve different things. They differ in the direct object.
But they can also differ in the adverb — how do you conserve things? One kind of conservative tries to do this woodenly. He doesn’t want anything to change, period, and so he insists that every candidate at presbytery take a vow to uphold the original Westminster, in exactly the form it came down from Allah in the original Arabic. But the mushy liberals are no better. They want candidates to appear at presbytery like they were guests on Ophrah. “Tell us what the Westminster Confession has meant to you in times of trouble.”
But strict subscription does not uphold the Westminster Confession. It is a flagrant denial of it. Synods and councils have erred, and do err, including this one, chump. Loose subscription is no help either. What good is a fence around the vegetable garden of truth that makes sure there are holes every ten feet big enough for the average erroneous rabbit? But there is an alternative to strict subscription, which necessarily elevates the Confession to the level of Scripture, and loose subscription, which lowers the Confession to the level of the 9th and 10th amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
This alternative is called honest subscription. A confession is a form of doctrinal shorthand. I can communicate a great deal in a short space of time by saying that I hold to the Westminster Confession, with “the following exceptions.” The person taking the exceptions, and the presbyters hearing him, are dealing with the material honestly. If he says that he subscribes to the Confession, but that he doesn’t buy all “that Trinity stuff,” he is a heretic, but at least he is being an honest one. And when the presbytery rejects him, they are doing so because they know exactly where he is coming from. But if he says that he believes the Westminster is overly restrictive in its statement of what is required on the Lord’s Day (as I did when I subscribed to the Westminster Confession), they know that this exception does not strike at the innards of Calvinism. Indeed, many of them would agree that this actually strengthens sabbatarianism; it does not weaken it. But the key is to let the presbytery know that you agree with the whole thing, with the exception of “this, this, and that.”
Now when a man subscribes to the Confession and his beliefs are not in conformity with what the Westminster theologians intended when they adopted it, there are two possibilities. One is that he is a dishonest man, saying that he believes things he does not believe. This is the way of liberalism — the same liberalism, incidentally, that prides itself on openness, transparency, and honesty. This is confessional rot, and it is a character issue. It is dishonest subscription.
But there is a “conservative” way to do this also. The problem is in the adverb, as I pointed out earlier, and it is usually done through ignorance, not dishonest malice. But ignorance can get you as far away from the original intent of the Westminster Assembly as dishonesty can. If a man gets off the right road, and is barreling along in the wrong direction at 75 mph, his speed is not affected by whether the choice to get off the right road was deliberate or accidental. In either case, his car still has eight cylinders.
And this brings us to Steve Wilkins. Steve really believes that through a right use of the ordinance of baptism, the grace of that baptism is really exhibited and conferred on those who whom it properly belongs (Westminster 28.6). He subscribes to this portion of the Confession intelligently and honestly. To speak in theological categories, he agrees with it. His opponents say they subscribe to this, but they really do not, and they do not give any kind of reasonable explanation for how they can take these words. They don’t need to give an explanation because we, on the other side of this divide, would like to debate with them, not prosecute them.
So why the crisis then? Their problem is that if they don’t prosecute us, they will eventually have to debate, and they don’t have the answers that such a debate would require. They cannot answer the simple confessional questions that would be put to them in a debate. “Dr. Waters, do you believe that in salvation a worthy receiver, one who is such by virtue of the evangelical faith given to him by God, is receiving the salvific grace of his baptism? Or do you take an exception to 28.6?”
And this is the conclusion of the matter. Honest subscription is a moral necessity, one that requires diligent, hard work. Of course. liberals need to learn how to be honest with their own hearts, and with us. But there are many “conservatives” who need to learn how to be honest with the text. There is a difference between honest subscription to an oral tradition of American revivalism and honest subscription to the Westminster Confession. And as recent events have indicated, this is not a minor difference.